Extension Educator, Horticulture
Compost happens. And it's a good thing it does or we would all need more than hip boots to get around. Organic matter breaks down or decomposes eventually, except of course, when it gets buried in a landfill. Remind me to tell you the story of the 25-year-old undecomposed hot dog found in a landfill.
Organic matter decomposition takes place whether we are around or not. However, as gardeners we can speed the composting process and have the finished compost retain the most nutrients for plant use.
Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic materials (stuff that use to be alive) using not only aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen, not the smelly anaerobic kind) and fungi, but also protozoans, millipedes, beetles and worms.
Now you may be wondering if you have to go out and buy a bag of protozoans for your compost pile. Compost piles are kind of a "field of dreams" proposition.... Build it and they will come. There are no magic enzymes or Dr. D. Com Pose elixirs. Commercial additives are not necessary.
Garden soil or finished compost has all the necessary microbes and creatures in it. How convenient! Managing a compost pile is just helping these guys to do their job by providing the food, moisture and oxygen they need.
Magazine articles make it sound like you need a degree in chemistry before you can compost anything. Once you understand the basic principles, the methods and containers for composting can be as diverse as the gardener can. Composting is really no more complicated than baking a cake.
Most of the ingredients for the compost pile will be clippings and plants from the garden and landscape. Leaves and grass clippings may be the largest components. Bags of leaves can be saved to add to the pile in summer.
Some things should not be put in the compost pile such as meat and bones, which can attract rodents, raccoons, cats and dogs. Dog and cat manure should also be left out since it can carry disease organisms. Although a well-managed pile should kill most disease organisms, you may also want to leave out obviously diseased plants.
Some items will take longer to decompose such as corn cobs, twigs and citrus rinds. Chopping items will speed decomposition as will mixing the pile when it heats up.
A great mix of materials for the pile is two parts grass clippings to one part leaves. Or just remember two parts green, moist stuff with one part brown, dry stuff (such as straw). Layer these in 6- 8-inch layers capped with a sprinkling of compost or soil.
Finished compost is "black gold" to gardeners. Forget buying peat moss to add to soils. Use compost instead. It is a great soil conditioner by loosening heavy clay soils, improving water-holding capacity of sandy soils, and adding all the wonderful microbes, fungi and important plant nutrients back into the soil.
Rate of composting depends on the surface area of the materials added (the smaller the pieces the faster the decomposition), moisture, oxygen, temperature, carbon:nitrogen ratio of added materials, size of the compost pile and frequency of turning the pile. This list may sound complicated. Just remember the mantra...compost happens.
Check with your local Extension office for more info on composting or check out our website at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/compost.
If this seems like way too much work, then go to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 East University in Urbana (217-344-5323) for some of their great compost.
Join Master Gardeners at the Idea Garden at the U of I Arboretum on September 15 at 10:00 am for a rose program and on September 22 for tools program. You can also see the results of the Landscape Recycling Center's products.